Steelers, Lions battle today
If the Steelers can't beat the Detroit Lions today in the first game at newly constructed Ford Field, they're headed toward a low to which they haven't dipped since 1987.
That was the year of the Steelers' most recent winless preseason, a season when they missed the playoffs and a year before they finished 5-11.
There is no fear of a similar collapse, but the Steelers need to touch up some elements of their game before the regular season starts Sept. 9 against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
Sure, the first two losses (16-6 to the New York Jets and 35-34 to the Washington Redskins) were just exhibitions. But the results can be blamed on a running game that has been slow to develop — due to the offseason ailments of running backs Jerome Bettis and Amos Zereoue and some lapses and injuries on the line — and the new third-down defensive alignment that still hasn't reached maturity. Now, that alignment loses one of its key elements as the rush end in the dime, 2001 NFL defensive rookie of the year Kendrell Bell, will miss the final two preseason games and maybe the opener with a high ankle sprain.
On a less important note, the Steelers were unable to rally against the Jets or hold off the Redskins, because of a lack of quality backups. Some of those players will get cut next week when the team must trim its roster to an NFL-mandated total of 65, but the manpower underage makes for some tense moments in the preseason.
The Steelers were handcuffed this year in signing quality rookies after the draft. When scouts started making telephone calls trying to sign players who hadn't been drafted, many of the best players were reluctant to join a team with only two positions up for grabs. Other than right guard and the buck inside linebacker, the Steelers entered training camp with 20 of the 22 starting positions already settled.
Plus, the team drafted Kendall Simmons in the first round to compete at right guard and signed James Farrior in free agency to tussle with veteran John Fiala at the linebacker spot. How could a rookie who wasn't good enough to be drafted find an opportunity on such a solid, veteran-laden team• So, it was no wonder that, when the starters finally went to the bench Sunday in Washington and the Steelers' lead grew to 24-0 early in the third quarter, the Redskins started carving up an inexperienced and modestly talented secondary. The Redskins threw five touchdown passes in less than 26 minutes. Three of those, by the way, came off the fingertips of quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who wasn't even in the Redskins' plans and was traded to the Miami Dolphins for a seventh-round draft choice Thursday.
The outlook doesn't look much better today, other than the fact that the Lions are also 0-2 and trying desperately to piece back together a team that was 1-15 a year ago. When asked what he would be looking for in the game today, Steelers defensive coordinator Tim Lewis said, "Keep everyone healthy."
A victory is also important, but the Steelers can't afford another grave injury such as the one suffered by Bell. That's why quarterback Kordell Stewart, who didn't miss a lot of practice time this week, won't play in an attempt to ease the effects of the concussion he received when Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington threw him to the ground.
Player evaluation is also part of the plan more than winning games as the Steelers try to determine how many wide receivers to keep. If Troy Edwards wants to be a part of the 2002 team — and recent indications are that he doesn't — he'll have to pick up his level of play. Too many other players — Lenzie Jackson, Lee Mays, Demetrius Brown and D.J. Flick, to name a few — are working hard to grab that roster spot from Edwards' weak grip.
Nothing will be decided, however, at right guard and inside linebacker. Simmons won't play, thanks to his sore hamstring, leaving the guard position to Oliver Ross for the moment. Farrior, the frontrunner at buck linebacker, has moved to the mack spot to replace Bell in the base defense. It will be interesting, however, to watch Clark Haggans fill in for Bell at rush end.
After the game, the Steelers will start trimming their roster. Two days after that, the final preseason game will be played at Heinz Field against the Minnesota Vikings.
Both games will be devoted largely to backups, although the first team is expected to play about a half today. You'll see much less of it against the Vikings.
"You're still evaluating players," Lewis said. "That's what we're doing right now, making sure that we are getting a good look at everybody that we can potentially be playing with."